Amanda Butler believes the first face her daughter saw was the face of Jesus.
Hailey Grace was born and died Oct. 14, 2017, with a hole in her heart and eyes not fully formed. She was nearly 4 pounds and 16 inches long — perfect in the eyes of her parents. Though she died 21 hours after she was born, she was a fighter, said Amanda, a resident of Winchester.
“It is amazing how something so little can touch your life,” she said.
The last thing on Amanda’s mind was finding something for Hailey Grace to wear. She couldn’t leave the hospital and was going to send her husband out when someone suggested contacting Forever Angels of Virginia, a nonprofit organization that donates burial garments created from donated wedding dresses.
Amanda was familiar with the group, but “I didn’t understand how important it was until I needed it.”
The group provided her with a dress and a bonnet for Hailey Grace.
Kimberly Violette began Forever Angels of Virginia, which became a nonprofit in 2015, after learning of a similar organization in Texas. She asked if others would be interested in helping as seamstresses or donating their wedding dresses. Violette’s daughter was the first to donate her wedding dress.
Since January 2016, Forever Angels of Virginia has donated 2,908 burial garments, which have been given to hospitals to keep on hand and to people across the country.
“There are stories behind each of the wedding gowns,” said Violette. “One dress still had the tags on it. Another dress came from a military couple married for 50 years. They thought there was no better way to keep their own marriage alive than donating the dress for a good cause.”
When a family receives an angel gown, they also get a card with the name of the bride who donated it and the seamstress who worked on it.
“Parents know what love was behind the gift,” Violette said.
Violette knows the pain of this loss, having suffered a miscarriage several years ago.
Violette said these dresses are the only things the parents will be able to give their babies. “When babies are born prematurely nothing fits them. (We have) pouches for babies 20-24 weeks, size 1-3 for preemies, and bigger sizes.”
“It’s one of the most difficult things I have ever done,” she said. “It’s very emotional meeting the families. We pray the dresses won’t be used.”
Volunteer seamstresses take the gowns, disassemble them and donate their time and money for needed materials, said Violette.
“The seamstresses blow me away,” she said. “A mom and two of her daughters sew on the weekends and have been helping since the beginning.”
Debbie Walker, treasurer and seamstress coordinator, said it was difficult to take apart the wedding gowns at first. “You look at why you’re doing it and it’s bittersweet,” she said. “You feel guilty being happy (to help) because you know what it is going to be used for.”
Marie Miller, a parishioner of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, saw a WUSA9-TV interview about the organization and wanted to become involved as a seamstress. She had three miscarriages.
“Part of the reason I do this is I believe we will see those babies again,” she said. “The whole thing of making these dresses is a prayer to God to keep those babies safe in his hands.”
Miller started sewing for Forever Angels nearly two years ago. She has made around 75 dresses. Each seamstress creates her own designs.
Miller said she likes to get creative. “I made suspenders and a belt out of shamrock material,” she said. “You can be really creative and then you think about what you’re using it for. It’s gratifying to know you are helping a family with this.”
“People don’t realize something as simple as a wedding gown can impact someone at the loss of their child,” she said. “Material is a simple thing. What better way to break down a wedding dress into so many dresses for a baby who will never be able to be married.”
“Hailey Grace looked absolutely beautiful and that’s the way it should be,” said Amanda. “At least I don’t have that regret, not having something beautiful for her.”
Amanda said the organization made a huge impact on her. “People need to know they are not alone,” she said. “It meant the world to me to get a gown.”